Cults But Make It Cute: How Cult of the Lamb Wins You Over With Cuteness and Horror
When you see something cute and fluffy — a golden retriever puppy taking its first wobbly steps, for example — how does it make you feel? Don’t you just want to pick it up, kiss its lil’ head and squeeze it tight? Cuteness puts you at ease, makes you lower your guard and open up your heart. It’s hard to say no to the doe-eyed gaze of a cute animal, at least until those eyes begin to drip blood and you realize you’ve sold your soul to the abyss that lurks beneath an adorable facade. The phrase “so cute I could die” has never had a more appropriate home than in Cult of the Lamb, because cuteness is the finest weapon in its armory — expertly wielded to refine the morally grim horror of running a cult into a palatable gaming experience.
A roguelike with base building elements, Cult of the Lamb mixes emotions like it mixes genres. You play as a literal sacrificial lamb brought back from the dead by an imprisoned god who asks only that you create a cult in their name in exchange for your life. Simple! To do this, you must collect resources and followers by venturing out into a cruel, harsh world that will often be the death of you. But every time you die, you come gasping back to life in the safe, cosy confines of your cult, where you must build a thriving community, care for your followers and, sometimes, punish them for speaking out against you.
Cults are insidious, cruel organisations that prey on vulnerable people, “saving” the hopeless to use them for selfish ends. They’re reviled for good reason, so its hard to present a cult as anything but an opposing force in a game unless you de-emphasize the gruesome truths and focus on the broader picture. When a game portrays a cult, they tend to present it in one of two ways: leaning into grotesque brutality and brainwashing (as in Outlast 2) or by putting distance between the player and the human cost of a cult by disguising it with game mechanics (the card-based Cultist Simulator is a prime example). Cult of the Lamb approaches it in a third, unique way: it openly presents the amorality of cult management without ever being overwhelmingly horrific. Instead of disguising or denying its grotesque aspects, it sprinkles on just enough cuteness for you to let them slide. A spoonful of sugar to make the sacrifice go down.
Cult of the Lamb asks you to do evil things and is happy to remind you of that, but those requests are far easier to stomach because it’s just so gosh-darn cute. Your sacrificial lamb goes smiling into the dark forest. You dance with worshippers, giving gifts and cashing in loyalty to grow your power. You cook delicious meals for your followers — and sometimes cook your followers into meals — because it keeps them happy and docile. You save the innocent from sacrifice and reserve the right to sacrifice them later if it benefits you. Every ‘kind’ act is paired with an inevitable cruelty, but the lamb is cute enough to allow for the moments when its eyes bleed red.
The cuteness is essential to Cult of the Lamb because it’s honest about the evils of a cult, but you aren’t meant to feel evil for enjoying yourself. The game doesn’t disguise your virtual misdeeds or play them for laughs, it just makes them palatable with a quirky art style and big smiles all round. If it was honest and realistic, it would be too hard to enjoy. Without such a finely tuned balancing act, Cult of the Lamb just wouldn’t be the success that it is.
Do you disagree? Here, just try some of this delicious soup I’ve made for you! I’m sure you’ll come around.
Cult of the Lamb is available now on PC, PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch.
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